News

Plan for 'blended' rail system gains steam

Rail Authority's peer review group latest panel to support Peninsula lawmakers' proposal to blend Caltrain, high-speed rail

A proposal by three lawmakers to blend high-speed rail and Caltrain on the Peninsula received a boost Friday when a panel of experts retained by the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) decided to lend its support to the idea.

The rail authority's "peer review group," which is chaired by Will Kempton, submitted a letter to state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, largely endorsing the plan the two legislators and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo unveiled in April. Under the Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon proposal, the Caltrain corridor would be electrified and modified to accommodate both Caltrain and high-speed rail.

The rail authority, which is charged with building the voter-approved rail line, has so far focused on the "full build" approach, which calls for separate tracks for the new rail system.

In its letter, the group notes that the rail authority's demand forecasts remain uncertain and that the "full build" approach is "an unnecessary bet that the upper ranges of the demand forecasts are highly likely whereas the 'blended' approach would postpone larger investments until demand has been demonstrated by the initial services on the line.'"

The shared-tracks approach, the committee said, could also help the rail authority manage the new system. The agency has been in existence for more than a decade, but has spent most of this time advocating -- rather than planning -- for a new system.

"HSRA has, as yet, no actual experience with construction cost and management," the letter states. "Adopting a blended approach with local agencies would permit a sharing of the planning and management burden in those areas where HSRA could move up the learning curve on the higher speed section in the Central Valley."

The three legislators unveiled the plan largely out of concern about the way the controversial project is being managed. Early design plans, which called for the possibility of elevated tracks stretching along the Caltrain corridor, have galvanized Midpeninsula communities and have prompted various city officials, including the entire Palo Alto City Council, to formally oppose the project they once supported. The legislators have also been increasingly concerned about the cash-strapped Caltrain service and believe the electrification of Caltrain (which currently uses diesel) could increase its ridership and revenues.

The rail authority has been skeptical about the "blended" proposal, with several members of the agency's board of directors saying they were worried about the prospect of Caltrain dipping into high-speed-rail funds. Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark has also said that the blended approach could make it difficult for the rail system to meet its mandated goal of getting from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about two and a half hours. Earlier this month, when Caltrain released a study finding the blended option to be feasible, van Ark said such a system could be possible in the "near term."

The new findings by the authority's peer review group, which reports to van Ark, lend further credence to the legislators' proposal. The panel determined that the "blended approach" could make the system more financially feasible. The project, whose cost was initially estimated at $43 billion, is now expected to cost more than $60 billion. The 2008 bond passed by California voters allocates about $9 billion to the project and the rail authority hopes that federal and state grants, along with private investment, would make up the balance.

The rail authority decided late last year to launch the rail system in the Central Valley.

"A 'blended' approach would be much less costly at the outset than the 'full build' approach, meeting one of the fundamental objectives of efficient investment management, which is to shift investment as far out in time as is consistent with project needs," the panel wrote. "Given the large capital needs of the project, money saved can obviously be used elsewhere."

The committee's findings were greeted with enthusiasm by Gordon and Simitian, both of whom have been critical of the rail authority's projections. Gordon said in a statement that he appreciates the peer-review group's feedback.

"Their statement, in conjunction with last week's capacity study released by Caltrain, shows a way forward for a system that is consistent with the current rail system and also begins to address the concerns of the communities that will support it," Gordon said. "There is much work to be done, but I am encouraged by these statements."

Simitian, who has been one of the Senate's leading skeptics of the rail authority's projections and business plans, called the commentary by the Peer Review Group "particularly compelling given the professional expertise and experience of the Peer Review Group membership." Simitian said in a statement there appeared to be a "growing consensus in support of a blended system" and cited recent statements from the peer review group, Caltrain and various Peninsula cities. He also said he wasn't surprised by the panel's findings.

"My colleagues and I have been making the case that high-speed rail 'done right' means a 'blended system' along the San Jose to San Francisco corridor -- a system that integrates High-Speed Rail with a 21st century Caltrain," Simitian said.

Comments

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 30, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Blended - that's right. Just another scam from our political friends in Sacramento and DC who seem to have put their ideas in a blender along with their common sense.

Might sound nice but HSR officials say the blended plan is a good "first step" - in other words HSR officials still want to split the Peninsula cities with four sets of tracks up on a viaduct.

By the way folks do you really want 200+ commuter trains a day plus freight trains zooming through town, with the HSR trains traveling at 110 mph to 125mph?

With all those trains and the requied lengthier closings for HSR trains delays at the track crossings would increase geometrically backing up traffic into neighborhoods and past El Camino. Emergency service vehicles would be delayed - fire, ambulance and police.

How are your CPR skills and hopefully your garden hoses are in good condition. Both may come in handy while you wait for fire and ambulance.

How do you feel about high winds from the HSR trains buffeting your school children while the wait to cross the tracks? And no study has been done on the health dangers of the track electrification.

What are the long term costs?
The cost of HSR, virtually all of which would be debt, would exceed the current state budget deficit. Close some more parks, libraries, courts and schools so the politicos and tourists can take the train.


Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Aug 30, 2011 at 3:44 pm

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has been engaging in a lot of Madison Avenue double-talk lately. They've been coining new phrases which are code and highly misleading.

The latest is called the "Blended, two-track Caltrain/HSR Solution." It means they will take the existing infrastructure of Caltrain's two tracks and modify them minimally for running some high-speed trains as well. We'll get back to that in a moment.

The other phrases, like "phased implementation," "initial construction segment," and "value engineering" conceal much more about their intentions than what they reveal. When you read between these lines, what we are actually being told is the following.

a. They will do the cheapest thing possible. The lowest cost will drive the design. This ignores the requirements of mitigating environmental impact and they will double-talk their way around that.

b. They will violate the requirements of the authorizing legislation by not having all the funding in place to build a HSR-usable segment, but will go ahead anyhow by claiming that completion will take a lot longer but they will get a start regardless.

c. They will not build a required, operational segment first, but merely lay as much track in the Central Valley as they have money for. That locks up their "territory" while they lobby for more funds, regardless of how long that takes.

This project could take decades to become operational. Meanwhile, they remain in business and on the government payroll. The more they can put on the ground the soonest, the more their eternal future is assured, even if they never complete and make this train operational. As we keep insisting, it's not really about the train. It's about money and politics.

So, back to this blended business on the Caltrain corridor. "Blended" means squat! They state that they are going to accept the recommendations of Congresswoman Eshoo, State Senator Simitian and Assemblyman Gordon to use only the existing two tracks, and run both high-speed trains and Caltrain during the day. That makes for about ten trains, combined, each hour, or twenty trains north and south. Without grade separations, it will be a show-stopper! By which I mean traffic will seriously back up at intersections.

That, of course, will add to the urgency of grade separations which, in turn, will add to the urgency of elevated viaducts. And if the tracks are going to be elevated, they might as well put all four tracks up there for Caltrain and HSR. Problem solved. (Of course, nobody has asked UPRR's opinion yet, but that's another discussion.)

Ten trains per hour also means that the trains won't go faster than 110 mph (if that fast) and HSR wouldn't be able to meet the time requirements of the legislation. But, who cares?!

In order for this "phased implementation" modification to happen, the rail corridor will have to be electrified, necessary for HSR and a dream come true for Caltrain. The rail authority will also require additional tracks for passing, so it will no longer be a 'true' two track system. (They already have four short additional passing track segments along the whole corridor, but will 'blend' in a lot more.)

While our jolly three politicians stipulated that this 'blended' solution would be the final one, with no future modifications, the rail authority has not accepted that. Remember, their intention is to have four tracks elevated on a viaduct. They are agreeing to this reduced version only because they don't have an extra $6 to $10 billion right now to build the four track elevated viaduct, but they sure will when (if) they get the cash from D.C..

Once they have the funding for that, the 'blended' two track solution goes out the window. The article below tells us that they estimate a cost of around $1 billion to do this blended version. Don't believe that either. It's not as simple as they make it sound.

Oh, yes, and what has been built for the 'blended' two-track version, including electrification, will all have to get torn out once they start building the elevated viaduct.

All this is typical of how this project continues to unfold in California. Lies, deception, false promises, endless, pointless negotiations, threats, and lots of double talk in the rail authority documentation and Senate hearings, as well as their own monthly board meetings.

With all due respect to all our well-intentioned colleagues, we still don't begin to appreciate the determination and ruthlessness of Van Ark and the rail authority. They are arrogant because the know there is no one to stop them from doing whatever they damn please. "Don't like what we are doing? Sue us!"


Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 30, 2011 at 7:34 pm

To Anna Eshoo:

earn your pay NOW and KILL this project. It is a boondoggle and will never do anything but cost us money we don't have. If you don't come out four square against this ridiculous project, I and many more will not be voting to reelect you. Think about that while you contemplate running for reelection again.


Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Aug 30, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Kill High Speed Rail and Kill it NOW!


Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 31, 2011 at 11:09 am

“If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it must be a duck.”

Give it any name you want; it's still a boondoggle!


Like this comment
Posted by Rokky
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 31, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Get a camera crew out by the railroad crossing on Ravenswood Ave when a Baby Bullet train goes by. Feel the wind, hear the noise, sense the vibrations and multiple that by 10 trains per hour (every 6 minutes). It think it would be a great journalism project for a high school media broadcast. After all, they are the ones who will be paying for this project for many, many years to come.


Like this comment
Posted by ruth
a resident of another community
on Aug 31, 2011 at 5:49 pm

HIGH SPEED RAIL BLENDING is just another way to get a shovel in the ground. Another way to spend BILLIONS ON AN UNNECESSARY NEW PROJECT; ANOTHER WAY TO TAKE MONEY FROM MORE URGENT SERVICES. ANOTHER WAY TO SINK CALIFORNIA FURTHER IN DEBT.

LEGISLATORS, HOW CAN YOU SLEEP AT NIGHT WITH SCHOOLS DOWN TO A 4 DAY WEEK? AND SEEING OUR COLLEGES IN SUCH A MESS?

MANY OF US WILL NOT VOTE AGAIN FOR ANY LEGISLATOR THAT SUPPORTS THIS WASTEFUL SENSELESS PROJECT!

AS BILL CLINTON SAID, "IT'S THE ECONOMY STUPID!"

WE NEED PROJECTS THAT GIVE JOBS TO AMERICAN WORKERS, NOT JOBS OUTSOURCED TO CHINA.

IN CONCLUSION, WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WHEN THE MONEY RUNS OUT? ASK TAXPAYERS FOR A BAILOUT SAYING HSR IS 'TOO BIG TO FAIL?'



Like this comment
Posted by Frugal
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 31, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Anna is history unless she stands up soon against this boondoggle before she has a serious challenger in the primaries


Like this comment
Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 1, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Rokky:

You forget that the 10 trains per hour is 10 trains per hour each way (during rush hour 20 trains per hour are going to pass by an interesting during rush hour.


Like this comment
Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Sep 1, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Correction: sorry for the above...

Rokky:

You forget that the 10 trains per hour is 10 trains per hour each way (during rush hour) 20 trains per hour are going to pass by a crossing, during rush hours


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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